Monday, November 3, 2008

Who are the Homeless?

Last night was the second time I helped out at Operation Nightwatch, which is "an ecumenical night ministry of friendship and community for the street population of downtown Portland." In other words, it's a small church service with a meal afterward for homeless and/or low-income people who need some social interaction.

Lately my heart for the homeless has really been changing.

When I was in college in Seattle, I helped out with a few service projects for the homeless. I was happy to help at the time, but I didn't think that it was "my thing" and I assumed that my spiritual gifts were better suited elsewhere in God's plan. I figured there were other Christians out there who were more capable than myself to talk with and help those "less fortunate."

This is relatively understandable being sheltered as a kid in the suburbs, growing up thinking that most homeless were on the streets because they were moochers. I didn't know how to talk to them. I didn't know what life was like being homeless. I couldn't identify with them.

But my heart and my mind is changing.

When I realized I started thinking differently about the homeless, it occurred to me when I did something I did so many times before: drive up to a traffic light and saw him standing with his sign. Usually I would be driving up to the intersection and hope for one of two things: 1) The light would stay green so that I could pass by without stopping, or 2) A car would be in front of me if the light was red, so that I didn't have to stop my car right next to the man. And if I did stop right next to the guy with the sign, I could always hide my eyes behind the side edge of the windshield and pretend he wasn't there. How selfish is that? How unlike Jesus is that?

I began to realize that that man on the corner with the sign is an actual human being. Like me. And that man has a personal story. Like me. And Jesus died on the cross for this man's sins. Just like He did for me.

Jen and I have been learning how to be very self-controlled with our finances since we've moved to Portland. Our incomes have taken cuts since we lived in Seattle, and we've been hovering close to having nothing in our checking account. And it has been now that I finally understand what it takes to be homeless. For us, it'd just be not having enough money. If something happened to us and we were required to pay a large amount of money, we wouldn't be able to pay our bills. Imagine if we didn't have any family or friends to help us. If we were socially isolated, where would we go? Probably on the streets.

God is making it clear to me how fragile and temporary our luxuries are in our lives. One day we are playing with our Wii in our warm home and the next day we could be selling all our possessions just to pay bills and stay warm.

It was cold last night. I have a very nice home with a heater and a cozy bed. There are people on the streets right now whose feet were cold last night. They don't know when their next meal will be because they don't have a refrigerator. They don't have a kitchen.

What I found amazing was that many of these people attending this church service at Operation Nightwatch were thankful to God for what they had. And of what little money they had, many still gave offerings to God. In Ephesians 1:3 it says that God provides for us our spiritual needs through Christ. Is there anything else more important? No. And that's why these homeless people praise God. It makes me sad because this homeless community understands God's blessings so much more than wealthy communities. I guess that was Jesus' point when talking to the rich young man in Matthew 19.

There were two men that I talked to at Operation Nightwatch.

The first man's name was Michael and he had a broken leg. He was hit by a car when he was drunk one night. He went to the hospital and got his leg fixed, but couldn't afford any pain killers. So he has to just deal with the pain. He currently lives with a friend and knows that he needs to kick his alcohol addiction. He knows that his life sucks because of it. He's a smart guy. We talked about where he grew up, his opinions about stuff, etc.

The second man's name was Leonard. He was a 40-something ex-Army staff sergeant with PTSD. He was telling me what it's like living on the street daily, where he gets food, and how much he wanted to go home to Montana. We talked about my job, kids, and how he should've listened to his mother better when he was younger

These are just two guys that have made mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. I raise my voice at my wife, I belittle something my sister is excited about, or I forget to do something at work. But the mistakes that these guys made have cost them much more than mine have. Different consequences, but still mistakes nonetheless. I am no better than these guys.

We all make mistakes because we are all sinners. And Jesus bent down to help those homeless people who were sick. The same kinds of people scraping by on the streets of Portland. We can't turn our heads to them. We can't just hope that we'll get a green light to pass them by. God calls us to be servants to one another. Our culture is so distorted that even Christians have a hard time knowing how a Christian should act. But by just reading the Bible we can understand so much better.

We need to be the change that we want in this country, in this world. The church is where the change starts. Christians are set apart to be God's people to change the world. And it can start with just seeing homeless people as actual people who need some help. How can I sit and waste my life with meaninglessness? God has a better plan us. It's all right here.